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Viewpoints: ‘Texas values’ being reconsidered in Hurricane Harvey’s aftermath

By Patrick Reddy
SPECIAL TO THE NEWS

“That spirit of fighting against adversity gives us a certain spark. And we are far more sophisticated than anyone gives us credit for.”
– Texas Governor Ann Richards

Watching the herculean efforts of Texans, both military and civilian, in coping with the tragedies of Hurricane Harvey, one can’t help but be impressed. Whatever the reputation of the Lone Star State for perhaps excessive beliefs in “rugged individualism,” there can be no doubt that Texans have pulled together since the storm.

CNN profiled two Texas women who had that “certain spark” that would have made Richards proud. One mother swam a mile through swirling waters to a bridge where helicopters were waiting – doing the backstroke with a 3-year-old baby on her stomach! And Nicole Reichert took in 16 strangers plus their numerous dogs. When asked by John Berman how long they could stay, she cheerfully replied, “as long as necessary.” (Kudos also to the “Cajun Navy” that volunteered from Louisiana and members of the U.S. armed forces who have performed so sharply). Even a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker like Chris Cuomo (the son and brother of New York governors) expressed his admiration for Texans’ can-do spirit, courage and compassion.

And that last virtue was truly unexpected on both the East and West Coast. Since World War II, stereotypes of Texans have grown (no doubt fueled by the hit TV show “Dallas”) of arrogant, right-wing, crude, ignorant, greedy, tough-talking, gun-toting, trigger-happy, ultra-macho, probably racist and sexist oil executives and cowboys. Come to think of it, that sounds a lot like Clayton Williams, the gaffe-prone oil millionaire Richards upset to become governor in 1990.

As Republican theorist (and Texas “Sun Belt” fan) Kevin Phillips wrote in the 1960s: “So big was Texas, particularly in Texan eyes, that it propagandized an oversized image and demonstrated a conspicuous consumption that sometimes made the phrase nouveau riche seem inadequate.”

When the Dallas Cowboys came to San Francisco to play the 49ers in the 1995 NFC Championship Game, the San Francisco Chronicle spoke for many coastal liberals when it intoned in an editorial that the game was a contest between “liberal humanism and corporate greed.”

Those stereotypes are unfair. As a journalist, I’ve made over a dozen trips to Texas to gather political data and report on Lone Star State politics. I couldn’t help but notice the friendliness and helpfulness of most Texans. (As it happens, I was in Houston on Aug. 18 and 19 helping University of Houston professor Richard Murray drive back to Texas from a California vacation). And the food was great, too!

Beyond individuals, Houston and Dallas are world-class cities with everything an urban sophisticate could want: museums, symphonies, pro sports, good restaurants, diverse populations and shopping. Austin is closing in on a million people but still retains a small-town feel and has a great music scene. San Antonio and El Paso are dominated by Mexican-Americans, a people known for their warmth and love of children.

The Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were passed by a Texan president, Lyndon Johnson, and the Texas big cities plus their suburbs quickly integrated after Johnson passed the Fair Housing Act in 1968. Texas has elected women governors and U.S. senators while the nation is still waiting for its first female president. It wasn’t liberal San Francisco that elected the nation’s first openly gay big-city mayor; it was Houston, with Mayor Annise Parker. And what was Texas Gov. George W. Bush’s slogan when he ran for president in 2000? “Compassionate conservatism.”

Watching all the drama in Houston made me reread the best-selling “Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans” by T.R. Fehrenbach. The book bristles with admiring descriptions of the “frontier” culture: “The cowboy was ready to sing, to ride, or shoot, at the slightest provocation …” who possessed “bedrock seriousness of purpose, canny calculation, shrewd understanding of times and men, and implacable determination to surmount or destroy obstacles …”

As a “Left Coast” Democrat, I must admit that I chuckled at the Fehrenbach thesis. His John Wayne-wannabees seemed like relics out of touch with life in the modern suburban shopping malls. But however antiquated they may seem, there is a flip side to martial virtues that can come in handy in a crisis: toughness, dedication and courage.

For example, Texans served and were awarded medals for bravery at a higher rate than their share of the national population in World War II. Audie Murphy of Farmersville, Texas, was the most decorated Army vet in World War II, while Admiral Chester Nimitz directed the naval victories in the Pacific Theater.

And those frontier virtues have been amply displayed in the past few weeks. When a volunteer with a private boat was asked by a reporter about his “feelings” on the various natural difficulties encountered, he replied that he didn’t think about how hard it was to rescue people; he just went out and did it.

The late (and talented) Molly Ivins told me in a 1990 interview after the Texas “oil bust” that Texans were good at handling adversity, in fact, better than they were at handling success. Recent events are proving that the first part of the Ivins equation was correct. Over the last few weeks, Texans of all stripes have demonstrated what Ernest Hemingway called “grace under pressure.” The nearly universal praise for “Texans helping Texans” should result in a vastly upgraded image for the Lone Star State.

Given the “Texas Toughness” that the whole world is witnessing, Fehrenbach, Johnson and Richards are probably smiling somewhere.

Patrick Reddy is a Democratic political consultant from California and is currently working on a book comparing California, Texas and Florida.

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